The tragedy in Boston has so saturated the news that the explosion in West, Texas, two days later, has become almost a sidebar. Yet the blast that destroyed the West Chemical and Fertilizer Co. killed 14 people (so far) and injured about 200, in a town of 2,700. The detonation of 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate (which Tim McVeigh used in Oklahoma City) registered 2.1 on the Richter scale and sent a mushroom cloud into the sky. There are important differences between the two events. One was carefully planned; the other an accident. One activated our worst fears of terrorists bringing war to America’s streets; the other involved the second-largest employer in a small town. One featured a deadly chase through suburban neighborhoods; the other leveled the community. One was premeditated murder; the other was the result of negligence. What they had in common was the extraordinary outpouring of compassion and courage at the scene. In West, almost all of those who died were volunteer first responders.
For its victims, terror comes in many guises – homegrown, imported and corporate, to name three. Preliminary investigation indicates that the Texas plant was storing much more ammonium nitrate than the company acknowledged, and federal regulators cited five “serious” violations when they last inspected the plant. They fined it $30. That was in 1985. Corporations bring jobs to a community, and “jobs” has become the great mantra of American politics. But as we have seen in Love Canal, in Toms River, and now in West, Texas, we need to pay attention to more than the economics.